Meet the PCATD

July 1, 1997

Now that the world knows that IBM's Deep Blue computer can beat the best human grand master in chess, general aviation is about to find out whether personal computer (PC) technology can provide training equivalent to practicing in the aircraft for an instrument rating. Is this a change of epic proportions? Within a month, the FAA is expected to release Advisory Circular 61-126, which describes how instrument students training under either Part 61 or 141 can substitute up to 10 hours on a PC Aviation Training Device (PCATD). Is this something you should consider?

First, some background. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation has been studying PCATDs for several years; in the summer of 1994, we published an article in our flight instructor newsletter, describing some of the computer programs and our thoughts on their use. In preparing students for IFR procedures, it was clear that those who had the benefit of PCATDs prior to the lesson learned faster in the aircraft than those who went straight to the world's worst classroom-the cockpit.

In 1995 ASF petitioned the FAA for an exemption to the instrument rating regs to allow credit of 14.5 hours (toward the 40-hour rating) by using a PCATD. ASF asked to conduct a more formal test in a controlled academic environment. The FAA had such a test just getting under way at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to compare IFR students who trained using PCATDs versus those who used traditional ground trainers. The results showed PCs to be as good as, and in some cases superior to, other ground trainers. Another study was done at the University of Illinois to further validate the concept and added aircraft-only training into the mix. Again, the PC was shown to be effective in reducing flight time required to prepare students for the checkride. (For more information, see " Safety Pilot: Flight Training Devices," February 1996 Pilot.)

Not surprisingly, there were some differences of opinion from simulator manufacturers and others, citing that this could be unsafe and lead to less-qualified pilots — with possibly longer training times due to negative transfer. Negative transfer occurs when habits acquired in the course of simulator training have to be unlearned when the airplane is flown. ASF conducted a survey with hundreds of pilots who had used PCATDs and four out of five said that the devices had improved their flying skills and that they had experienced no negative transfer. More than two-thirds thought that at least some time on a PCATD should count for flight time toward the IFR rating. Since there was no evidence to support the negative transfer theory or safety issues, the FAA began the process of issuing the AC. Incidentally, Canada, Switzerland, and Australia have already led the way.

All training that is logged for credit must be done with an instrument flight instructor, using a curriculum that is in general compliance with Part 141 — even though training may be conducted under Part 61. ASF will be releasing a Safety Advisor shortly on the use of PCATDs, and we will provide some curriculum guidance. The rules obviously do not prevent a student or instructor from using PCATDs for additional training, but no more than 10 hours can be credited. An additional 10 hours may be logged in one of the older-style desktop trainers or other approved devices, but collectively no more than 20 hours using ATDs or PCATDs can be applied toward the rating under Part 61.

So will your basic PC with a joystick, keyboard, and mouse be allowable for credit? Rhetorical question, of course — the answer is "No." Physical controls, performance characteristics, and display capabilities need to meet the new standards. A manufacturer of PCATD software must request approval from the FAA, using a qualification guide that shows that the device meets all the requirements.

These new tools, effective and affordable as they may be relative to other training devices, should be used intelligently. The PCATD, as a part-task trainer, should be used like the more expensive full-task trainers and aircraft. In early training, much of that extra full-task capability goes to waste, but you pay for it just the same. The PCATD has the promise to deliver only what is needed at the time without a lot of extra overhead.

Most instructors use the building-block method of instruction as described in the FAA's Aviation Instructor's Handbook, AC 60-14. In summary, when training in the aircraft, simulator, or part-task trainer, the pilot first learns to scan, interpret, and control the aircraft or device. The instructor handles navigation and communication. Then navigation instruments and radios are introduced, one at a time. After that is mastered and the pilot can fly an assigned track while maintaining situational awareness, communication is introduced. Now we're ready for the whole enchilada. In the aircraft, there are many distractions such as noise, constant movement, and multiple preoccupations for both the instructor and student. The world's worst classroom won't stop to allow explanations — something that all ATDs do well.

With proper use of PCATDs, less time will be spent teaching basic instruments in the aircraft, flying endless holding patterns on sunny days, and fumbling through procedure turns and practice approaches as students try to cope with more than they're ready for. The process should be integrated with airplane training. The good news for instructors is that when they do get into the aircraft, the basics of scan, situational awareness, and multitasking skills should be mastered.

Simulation may save time and money, but the real benefit is better training and more opportunity to experience actual IFR. For simulation to work, though, it must be integrated into the training experience — not just when it's convenient because the airplane is in maintenance or the weather is so bad the birds are walking.

PCATDs can't be used for any portion of the practical test. One of the reasons why the FAA was persuaded to try the new technology was that ASF asked for a standard of measurement that everyone must pass — the instrument checkride in a real aircraft. Pilots, regardless of how they were trained, will be tested in the aircraft — period.

While there is no requirement do so, according to the AC, the FAA is asking flight schools to provide them with the numbers of pilots trained using PCATDs, number of flight hours required to graduate, number of graduates who passed the practical test on the first attempt, and any other information to help them assess the effectiveness of the devices. ASF would be interested in seeing that information as well.

What about using the PCATD for IFR currency? While the devices will undoubtedly be useful to pilots in retaining their skills, ASF believes that the currency requirements for six approaches and holding and tracking skills required every 6 months under the new Part 61 should be done in the aircraft. One approach per month, or an instrument proficiency check — as needed — in the aircraft is not an unreasonable expectation. Use the PCATD to knock the rust off and then go fly an airplane. After all, that's what flying is all about.

Approved PCATD tasks

Here is a summary of the tasks allowed on an approved PCATD and the physical controls required. For a full description of requirements of PCATDs, visit ASF's Web site.

Procedural task

Flight by reference to instruments

  • Straight and level
  • Airspeed changes
  • Climbs and descents
  • Turns

Abnormal/emergency procedures

  • Timed turns
  • Compass turns
  • Instrument failures
  • Turbulence procedures

Radio navigation procedures

  • VOR/NDB/ILS navigation
  • Holding patterns
  • DME use
  • Instrument approaches
  • Missed approaches

Communications procedures

  • ATC clearances
  • ATIS/CTAF procedures
  • Sigmets/airmets/FSS

Required physical controls

  • Self-centering control yoke or stick
  • Self-centering rudder pedals
  • Throttle, prop, mixture
  • Flaps, pitch trim
  • Carb heat, cowl flaps
  • Com, nav radios
  • Clock or timer
  • Landing gear handle
  • Transponder
  • Altimeter setting
  • Mic with push-to-talk switch

See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.